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Greetings and salutations and welcome to episode six of the Pop Culture Academy where we do all things pop culture with just a bit, just a bit of an academic slant. Last week when we ended the show I didn't have an episode title in mind for this week. And so I wasn't able to plug it properly. I think I've settled on "Why the Trump Administration is So Good For Art". Now, you know, I know I know, so a guy who's publicly stated that he'd like to do away with the NEH and the NEA and who probably hasn't heard of NPR or PBS which might be a good thing. If he should discover that those organizations exist they may be in trouble. But what's a guy like that got to contribute to the arts? So, just stay with me. I'll explain.
So, by way of explanation I want to begin this episode with a clip from my favorite film, well, you know, I say favorite. It's one of my favorites. I mean I don't know how you are about this but really my favorites in any category can change on any given day. It sort of depends on exactly what category of film we're talking about or what am I trying to accomplish with my pick? Like, am I trying to impress someone with how deep my knowledge is? Do I want to sort of pull out some film that nobody's ever heard of and say, "Oh, this is my favorite"? Am I trying to show someone that I'm hip? Am I trying to prove I'm not hip? Yes, I'm someone with pop credentials who loves my Blockbusters and here's my favorite Blockbuster. But today my favorite movie's The Third Man. Now, if you don't know this movie you really need to. Really. I mean, even if you're younger. Even if you're not into black and white films. You haven't watched anything that was made before, you know, 1985. You owe it to yourself to see this film. And it's a good introduction into classic film if you're not someone who watches a lot of classic film. It's an incredibly important film. It's an example of film noir which is just so cool but influential, so American in terms of film. It comes from such an American form of the novel. The hardboiled noir detective story. And Third Man, also a great example of how black and white directors really really knew how to work in their particular art form. The use of dark and light in this film. The use of shadow. I mean, it's a masterclass in filmmaking. And that's something worth saying, I think. You know, it isn't about art getting better over time necessarily. I think sometimes we get into this mindset of "our art forms are more realistic than the past and that makes them the best". So, naturally, the latest video game, the latest film technology, the latest virtual reality headset, that's all supposed to be the apex of all art. And we look back at something like Donkey Kong, right? And we say, how primitive. How primitive is this? Compared to something like, I don't know - what's the latest? I'm so out of video games these days. But you know something like Arkham Asylum which is, I know - it's a little dated now. If we look at something like Arkham Asylum and we compare it to Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong seems so primitive. Why would - you know - you poor 80s kids, right? You poor kids of the 80s who had to grow up with such primitive technology. And I don't think my oldest daughter who's 22 - I don't think she has ever seen a black and white film, to be quite honest. But every kind of art has its own particular rules. And so if you go back to black and white film, it wasn't that they felt limited. They learned the rules of that form and the masters who worked within those rules, they're as good as any artist you can think of. Just because they're working in a slightly different medium doesn't mean that medium or that product is lesser.
All right, so The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed in 1949. Reed also did Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol; won Best Director for Oliver in 1968. And, obviously as I say, Reed is a master of light and shadow. This particular film is based on a script by Graham Greene and Greene doesn't show up in many high school or undergraduate english classes and so not a lot of people remember him. But he really is a hugely important British writer of the 20th century. Certainly one of the top 10, I would say, of the 20th century. Maybe higher than that. The way I feel about Greene is that he's kind of an heir to someone like Somerset Maugham. And then kind of an ancestor of John le Carre. So like, he's sort of a link between - I mean there's some mystery, there's some spy focus in Greene sometimes. You get it in this film. You get it in Our Man in Havana which is quite comic but also sort of spy-based. There's something about spies in there but more importantly there's this sort of British, stiff-upper-lip kind of quality to his work, his characters. And so, like I said, I think he makes a nice link between Maugham and John le Carre. The film stars Joseph Cotten who I happen to really like. There's just something really likable about Cotten to me, something very genuine in his acting. It's very smooth. It's very calm and in this film it works out greatly because the guy playing against him is Orson Welles who really could...and well, let's face it...who really does steal the film. But it works as a nice contrast, Welles versus Cotten. And in fact they worked on a number of films together. It had just been eight years since Citizen Kane and Cotten had been in that film as well and they were in, I want to say half a dozen films together. And really, I think, make a nice contrast. Welles is sort of, I don't know, the rage that's in him but that's very controlled versus Cotten who's just totally relaxed all the time. Anyway, but the film is kind of stolen by Orson Welles and there's every, really, there's every reason to think that Welles had a great deal of influence on the making of this film and not just his own part. I mean, I think he's - I don't know why I want to say co-director, I don't know if I want to go that far but certainly had an influence. And so you have to think about the time period, this is another important part of this film, the time period when this gets made. It's 1948-1949 and we're really, we're only three or four years from the end of the war and the world this movie is set in, which is post-WWII, it's really still there as they are making it. They are making this film about a very contemporary moment.
All right, so before we get to this clip let me set it up and try to do it without - I want to do this without giving too much away. I don't know if I can do that or not. So Joseph Cotten plays a western writer. He writes western novels. He's shown up in Germany really to see an old friend of his named Harry Lime. And this is Berlin just after the war and the city's been divided up by the allies and Russia's closing down it's section of Berlin. And it's not a good situation. And everybody - you know, there's high poverty, it's a destroyed city. And the black market, in particular, is really thriving. And so Cotten's character whose name is Holly Martins, he manages to track Harry down. Right? Again, they were old friends. And they meet very famously in this dark, sort of, well I don't know that it's deserted. I mean, there are people at this - it's a fair grounds - and there are people at the fairgrounds but I guess the way that, again, this black and white sheen to this movie, it feels very dingy. It feels very dim. It feels kind of isolated. They ride up on the ferris wheel which is one of those ferris wheel's that's a car rather than a seat so they are standing up in this ferris wheel. And they are looking down on the people below them and it's rainy and dreary and it's a bombed out city. Now Cotten has heard these terrible things about his old friend Harry Lime, I mean, just terrible things. Apparently Lime sold, among other things, you know and the police are looking for him, right? So among other things Lime sold a bunch of tainted black market penicillin to orphanages. And children died. And so Martins confronts him. Martins says, "How could you do this, Harry? It's the black market. And you're trying to get a fast buck and I get that. But the children, Harry." He says, "The children." And this is the scene and it's one of the most famous in all cinema and personally it's probably my favorite bit of dialogue ever and I think you could make a serious case that this is the most important scene in cinema.
<playing audio from movie>
Lime: Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there...Would you feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man...free of income tax. Only way you can save money nowadays.
Martins: Lot of good your money will do you in jail.
Lime: That jail is in another time zone...There's no proof against me besides you.
Martins: I should be pretty easy to get rid of.
Lime: Pretty easy...
Martins: I wouldn't be too sure...
Lime: I carry a gun...I don't think they'd look for a bullet wound after you'd hit that ground...
Martins: They dug up your coffin.
Lime: And found Harbin? Hmm, pity. Oh, Holly, what fools we are, talking to each other this way...As though I would do anything to you - or you to me. You're just a little mixed up about things...in general. Nobody thinks in terms...of human beings. Governments don't, why should we? They talk about the people, and the Proletariat... I talk about the suckers and the mugs...it's the same thing. They have their five year plans and so have I.
Martins: You used to believe in God.
Lime: I still do believe in God, old man... I believe in God and mercy and all that... The dead are happier dead. They don't miss much here...poor devils. What do you believe in? Well, if you ever get Anna out of mess, be kind to her. You'll find she's worth it. I wish I had asked you to bring me some of these tablets from home...Holly, I would like to cut you in, old man. Nobody left in Vienna I can really trust - and we have always done everything together. When you make up your mind, send me a message... I'll meet you any place, any time. And when we do meet, old man, it is you I want to see, not the police. Remember that, won't you?
Don't be so gloomy...After all, it's not that awful. Remember what the fellow said...in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Renaissance...In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce?...The cuckoo clock.
So long, Holly.
So, what Lime says here is really a fascinating idea. We talked about last week what separates literature from "literature" and it can be different things. Sometimes it's a stylistic device. Sometimes it's a concept. Like Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, if you know that novel. What makes that book so important - I mean there's several things that make that book important - but right off the bat, right at the beginning of the novel you have this question that is presented to us that Raskolnikov, the central character, asks. And Dostoyevsky gives us an answer to this question but the question really is still hanging out there. We still have this question now and it comes up and I mean it gets molded - this question and this issue gets molded and turned into all sorts of interesting, I don't know, television shows, films these days. And the idea is this - if you're a good person, if you have something important to give to the world, like, in this case if you're going to be a doctor and save lives but you can't do that because you're too poor. You're too poor to afford medical school, if you are in that situation is it okay to kill someone who's sort of useless and kind of mean and then to use their money to accomplish this great thing? You're going to help so many more people than this old woman who's close to death anyway, right? She's going to die soon anyway. And what's she contributing to the world? And if I bump her off and I use the money to fund my brilliant medical career, well you know, isn't that a fair tradeoff? So it's a fascinating idea that Dostoyevsky just sort of comes up with. And The Third Man has this amazing idea too - does horror, horrible circumstances, does that produce better art? Harry says very clearly "horrible times, Italy." Horrible situation. Everybody agrees. People are dying right and left. The people are repressed. The leaders are so corrupt. People are poisoning - it's just a terrible situation. But some amazing art. Whereas Switzerland, lots of peace but not so much art, or philosophy, or music, or literature. Just kind of "okay, we're very happy and we're very boring".
Now, there are different dimensions to this idea. Can we make it - is it personal for instance? What I mean is - must you be half mad to make art? Must you be depressed and must your life be miserable to really make great art? How many drunken suicidal artists or musicians or painters do we know from Mozart to Van Gogh to Sylvia Plath to Jack Kerouac? It just seems like that's an important component, perhaps, of personality in art. But this is another story entirely. And I was thinking about the Trump era and the impeachment process that's underway and how chaotic things are and how unhappy a lot of people are. And I don't know if there's so much that's been produced in the last three years. Is that connection going on? Is this negative point in American history, is it producing good art? It may take some time to recognize. You don't always recognize it when it's happening. I do know what some things that 9/11 and the Bush administration and the Iraq war produced. I mean, that was a turning point, it was a turning point in a lot of ways and it set up some interesting contrasts and some interesting conflicts that I think a lot of great artists of that period, that first twenty years - well, we're still in the first twenty years- but that first 10 or fifteen years of the 21st century did produce some fascinating art. I think it starts with a turning point in how we as human beings and we as Americans think. My parents grew up in the shadow of WWII and I grew up during the Cold War. And the thing that mattered most, and of course that period - those periods of course also produced, I mean post WWII we get The Third Man. But I really take a lot of pride in the fact that the 80s, growing up in the shadow of the Cold War produced some really fascinating - particularly music that captures the anxiety people were feeling in different ways. And not always, you know, not every song's about nuclear war, though there are some great songs about nuclear war but that idea of nuclear war sort of filters down into the culture and shows up in, I don't know, "Psycho Killer" by The Talking Heads. This anxiety, this fear then it's not about nuclear war but it sort of spreads out into other ways of being anxious. But anyway, so back to our - so I grew up in that period and in that period, from my grandparents from my parents from me, the idea of anyone collecting your information or spying on what you're doing, knowing what kind of phone calls you're making...When you go to the airport, you know, scanning you, running you through these scanners where someone can essentially see you naked so that they can tell if you're carrying a weapon. In the era that I grew up in and in the 80s and the 70s, no none would have allowed that. I mean people would have just risen up and just absolutely rejected these ideas. And again, part of it has to do with post-modernism. But it's also very tied to this post-9/11 thing. For me, for my parents, freedom and the right to privacy - these were fundamental rights, like more important than life. People had died not to preserve safety for America because really in WWII it wasn't really about safety. It was about freedom. And during the Cold War we were free and the Soviet Union wasn't. And we had freedoms and they didn't. And that was what was important. But 9/11 wasn't about freedom. 9/11 was about safety. And suddenly at that point all we wanted was safety.The whole point of terror is to make you afraid and it worked. We were afraid. And so when I would teach, you know, the last years that I was teaching we'd have these conversations with my students because I hadn't even, by that point, I had not gotten it but I was beginning to - they were universally - they absolutely approved of airport scanners. They thought it was a fantastic idea. And you know we're getting this right now with Edward Snowden who's you know what's his situation. Is Russia going to kick him out? That always brings the debate back up. I mean, to me and to a lot of people of my generation, I think, and certainly my parents generation, the notion that - he blew the whistle on the fact that we were being spied on. But the problem is the generation now, they don't care about being spied on. And part of it's post 9/11, the idea of safety, but part of it's all the technology that's fueled by spying like Facebook and Amazon algorithms that send you exactly the book you need. And if you're of this age, you don't really care if companies are spying on you because freedom isn't our biggest concern. Our biggest concerns are safety and convenience. And if we have those two things we'll give up a little freedom. And that's okay.
But out of all this we also came to question ourselves, in the early 21st century, post 9/11 because the question was what are we willing to do in the name of safety? How much freedom will we give up? And, again, at this point I think we're really pretty much giving it all up. We don't care. But at that moment it was still kind of new. Do we give up freedom - do we give up this fundamental right for safety? And, you know, okay so - and we sort of decided we're willing to give up our own. We certainly didn't seem to mind giving up other people's. So we create these black sites and we decide on using "modified torture" techniques or whatever you want to call it. I should say, I'm not endorsing or condemning this moment. That's a completely different show, a completely different conversation; you can email me and we'll have that conversation if you want. I'm not doing that. What I'm doing is I'm pointing out it was a serious shift in our thinking. It was a change in how we thought and when you have those moments of change art's going to have an interesting response to that. So we went to this place, and I guess it's sort of like the place Dostoyevsky went to in a way, you know, Raskolnikov what are we willing to trade? In his case, are we willing to become a murderer so that we can be a great doctor? And in our case for safety, what are we willing to trade? So we traded. But that worries us a little because we're not the true blue good guys anymore. There's a shift. And it kind of happened when the Cold War was over. I mean, for all those years, starting with WWII, post WWII - think about this, we loved Superman. I mean we could not get enough Superman. Why? Because Superman is all good. And we thought of ourselves as all good. And with the Nazis it was pretty easy. We're good, they're bad. Easy to figure out. Case closed. And Cold War, same thing, right? We were good, Soviets were bad, easy - we were free, they were not, you know, we wanted to spread freedom around the world, they wanted to take over the world and put us under a dictatorship. It's very simple to tell where the lines were; who's good, who's bad. So, Superman works great. But in Bush's white house, in that America, suddenly Superman lost his mojo. Superman didn't seem so great anymore because we weren't all that good anymore. It was okay, we were trying to accept that we weren't all good, but we weren't. And Superman kind of made us feel a little shallow. So, you know, who wants to watch that? And so who rises then? Well, Batman. And not the Michael Keaton Batman, the Val Kilmer Batman, the Christoper Nolan Dark Knight trilogy. And that is a whole other universe with a whole other Batman. And that Batman, I mean it was always there in Batman but Christopher Nolan brings that out in a more dramatic way. Batman will bend the rules to save the day. His motives and his methods are sometimes questionable and better than that, who do we really love in those movies? Because it's not Batman. Batman's really not the most important character in those movies, right? It's not Batman. The guy who gets us, the guy who grabbed us was the Joker. And Heath Ledger just molds that character and changes it for us and he makes him into the perfect post 9/11 villain. We sort of like, in a way, because he's sort of like us, right? He kicks ass and takes names and he isn't interested - he's not motivated by money. He's not a common thief. He's interested in chaos. And somehow these negative antiheroes start to grab us. And they start coming out of the woodwork in droves. I mean, you've got - well let's talk about Jack Bauer from 24. That - and that one comes from a whole other direction but 24 was a phenomenon because we wanted a hero who kind of reflected us, who didn't mind torturing a few bad guys if it helped people, who didn't mind bending a few civil liberties if it would save the President from assassination. But you get all these antihero characters from House to Dexter to, you know, ultimately Walter White. All of these people who we like because they are shady and part of that, again, part of that is this post 9/11 thing where we really identify with that struggle between doing good but sometimes doing bad if it will have a good outcome. It's an interesting question. And there were other statements around the time, Spielberg's Munich, for instance, is a great commentary on, you know, what is - if a crime is vicious enough, what is acceptable in terms of payback? How far can we go? American Idiot from Green Day was another sort of outgrowth of this in another direction having to do with, well again, freedom and your voice and what we're allowed to say and not say. But if you're going to talk about the par excellence for art in that period there really are only two words - Battlestar Galactica. And quite frankly, if you were able, and you can't obviously now, but if you had been able to see that series in it's context, as it was unfolding in the early days of the Bush administration, I think it's probably in the top two or three shows, television shows, ever made. Now, it doesn't have that context anymore. You can't watch it that way anymore. That moment's past. It doesn't move us in the way it did at that particular moment in history. And that's a whole other question, like, that maybe we should explore in another episode. How much does context count? How much do we miss by not really knowing and feeling and being in the times that Shakespeare's Macbeth was performed in? And if we could watch that play, somehow, in that moment and be in that moment, how much different, how much more amazing would that be? But Battlestar was something truly special. I mean, to be honest, I'm not sure if they knew what they were doing when it all began. I mean they're going back to the original series, it's a remake. And the series was a fascinating concept. That idea that Caprica and the other twelve planets, the other twelve colonies are destroyed in a sneak attack - I mean, did they mean that to suggest 9/11? I'm not sure. They certainly figured out the relationship pretty damn quick. In the first several episodes, already, just I mean like in the first episodes there are questions about who's in charge. Should the military be in charge? This is a military situation, right? Or, should the civilian government be in charge? Does an event like that, 9/11 or a sneak attack on your home planet, does that mean we just turn to martial law? Do we give up our freedom so easily and let ourselves just be locked down because that's what's going to make us safe. And if it's going to make us safe, we'll live in a kind of prison. But, you know, they ask questions - what have we lost if we do that? And then as the series goes on we run into countless questions of just what are we willing to do to survive? What are we willing to give up? What are we willing to give up about our humanity, for instance? Are we willing to torture? And what happens when we find out actually who the bad guys are and that they're way more like us than we thought. Or, what happens when we find out that some of them are us? And what do you do, I mean, that's the real question towards the end of that series, right? What do you do when this thing that you've hated and hated and hated and you turn it around and look at it and you see that, oh god, that's me? I'm that. And who's the bad guy now? And who is the good guy? And the madness and the desperation to survive. But then what do you do with survival if there's no hope? Right? How good is safety if there's no freedom? All these kinds of questions come up. And then, of course, the end of that series absolutely ruins what it was. I mean, it's fine...it was not, it was not satisfying. And of course the ins and outs of what was wrong with it are more than we can get into here. I will say, I put up a blog a month or two ago about finales if you want to go looking for it. It's somewhere on the Pop Culture Academy website. But let me just say, I don't think that the weakness of that finale should undo what the series was. And I'll say it again because I'm not sure - if you haven't seen it, you can't go back and appreciate it without context. I mean, can you - is it a good series? Yes, it will always be a brilliant series. But it's missing something if you go back and watch it now because it's just not in the same context that we were living in.
All right, so I think there have certainly been efforts to deal with the Trump administration or to capture the unease that we feel during the Trump administration. I mean obviously we can look at something like American Horror Story, for instance, and who did that season just after the election or within the year after the election and it was all about the election. But maybe that's too on the nose. Right? It's too much - it says too directly what's bothering it. I was struck recently in watching The Handmaid's Tale which, of course, that began - the early season of that hit just as the Me Too movement was getting started. And it still has terrific resonance with that moment. But I was struck this season in the scene where the Marthas are helping June prepare food packages for the children. I'm trying not to give too much away. In that moment it's just so obvious, right? It suddenly struck me, if you're trying to escape from persecution to another place, if you're trying to cross a border, someone has to make care packages for you. And in that moment I realized that they were saying something about immigration, about crossing borders. And it's not a one to one analogy, which maybe makes it better. Again, some things are too on the nose. The children at the end of the season are welcomed when they cross the border, instead of shut out. And so, it does kind of give you pause to think about the reasons why people choose to try and cross borders rather than simply seeing the situation through your own eyes, think about it in terms of what kind of persecution must someone be facing to make that trip? And if Canada doesn't want refugees, then it's sort of on them to overthrow Gilead, right? Because, again, it's not one to one, because it's not the kids get rejected in the way that immigrants today get rejected at our borders but there is something being said there. There's an analogy being drawn. But I can't really think of another work, movie or an album or a show that's digging as deep as Battlestar did with the Bush administration. And I don't know what that means. I mean, there's bound to be something post-modern about it. If you think about the political progression that has happened and I don't mean it in literal terms, again, I'm not interested in talking about politics. But think about it from the standpoint of being in the matrix. That whole post-modern idea that we've discussed - nothing's real, right? So it's not about talking about politics and who's got the power because there's no power. But we go from having an actor in the white house to then the first president that was so monitored that was so much in the matrix that he couldn't conduct an affair in secrecy. Right? I mean, lots of presidents have had affairs. We are in an age where you can't do that without being caught and he was the first president to live in that age where you were going to get caught. To now we've got this guy, and I mean, what does it mean to move from movie actor to television reality show star? And that's the shift we've undergone in a nutshell. That's postmodernism. So, why don't I just say this at the end of this week's show - what do you think is the artistic response to the last three years? Is there something out there that I am missing? Is someone making a statement that I haven't picked up on, somehow? Somehow I've missed it. I pay a lot of attention to pop culture. I don't get it all. And so I'm curious what you think. Is there something out there that does get it? And let me know what you think. Don't forget that there's the Pop Culture Academy Facebook page where you can give us feedback and let us know what you think. There is Twitter, Pop Culture Academy Twitter account, there's a playlist for the week and there's, you know, obviously on YouTube there's a section for comments. Let us know what you think and particularly on this issue - what do you think is the best art that has come out of the Trump administration?
Katie Adkins co-produces this podcast and manages Pop Culture Academy's social media presence including our website. Also, a special thanks to our east coast correspondent, Dr. J. Lundquist who contributes news items and story ideas and who generally keeps me on track.
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